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Systems management in 3D

The day when administrators will fly through the insides of their networks to maintain servers and PCs is almost here.

Administrators should be flying through the insides of their networks to manage servers and PCs in no time.

Computer Associates (CA) is expected to finally ship its much-publicized Unicenter The Next Generation (TNG) enterprise systems management tool, an upgrade to an existing product, by the end of this month.

This is only one of several moves expected from the company in the next few weeks. Other rollouts include a Unicenter version that addresses management of high-availability network segments. The high CA profile may be just the tonic the company needs to mute publicity surrounding a recent stock dip and lower-than-expected sales in Europe.

The new version of CA's flagship management product includes a so-called Real World interface that lets administrators literally navigate through a series of three-dimensional corporate network sites, as in a video game. It allow administrators to drill down from a particular building representation that shows an alert all the way to the inside of a networked device (like a server) to see the status of a component within that device (like a disk drive). The new version also graphically illustrates what applications and processes are running on a system.

When CA was in beta for the new version, several customers characterized the 3D interface as a "cute gimmick" that they would never implement, according to Sam Greenblatt, CA's senior vice president of advanced technology. "Within six months, they were on their Real World interface most of the time," he said.

The interface is a significant development in the management space because it can correlate interrelated problems and display them in simple terms, rather than spewing out a bunch of alerts and accompanying data in cryptic form, Greenblatt said.

Another significant feature of the interface is called UniSpace, which can provide information to an administrator on what applications or processes are running on a particular server, and if there is a problem, can correlate software data with hardware data and provide an answer.

Paul Mason, an analyst with market researcher International Data Corporation, has characterized the TNG 3D interface as "demoware" that will not be used by many administrators. The interface may, however, find a home in the upper echelons of IT hierarchies, Mason said, in the hypothetical office of "Dilbert's boss" (the popular newspaper comic strip character) who may want a simple way to maneuver through the network to diagnose a problem.

Greenblatt said the TNG upgrade does allow an administrator to run the product in any fashion they please: 3D, traditional 2D, or line-by-line interface. A Web browser front end for Unicenter has also been announced, but there is no specific time table for its release.

Shipping soon after the TNG launch will be Unicenter-HA, a high-availability version of the management system intended for clusters of Microsoft Windows NT, Unix, and Tandem Computers Himalaya servers. The HA option will include application programming interfaces for Microsoft's Wolfpack clustering extensions and NCR's LifeKeeper high-availability clustering product.

The HA release is dependent on how soon Microsoft completes its beta program for Wolfpack, which it began during the holidays. "The engineering work is done [on the product]," according to Greenblatt.

IDC's Mason said he is still unclear as to how the interface actually interoperates with the intelligence within the software. "They haven't explained anything about what's behind the interface." TNG will use a distributed software architecture that disperses software intelligence to individual servers and PCs and also includes user-customizable agents.

Like previous versions of Unicenter, the TNG pricing model will use a "power unit" rating system. Each server or PC configured with TNG will have a rating and a cost will be associated with that rating. Unicenter TNG pricing for Microsoft Windows NT-based systems starts at $2,500, according to CA officials.

The TNG announcement may momentarily take investors' eyes off the company's stock performance. After CA announced that revenue in Europe would not meet expectations for the quarter late last month, its stock fell 21 percent. The stock is currently trading at just over 47. CA will announce quarterly results at the market's close on January 21.